Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time arguing with people.
Mainly white males.
I’ve argued with them about racism in Australia. I argued with them about politics. I argued with them about sexism and homophobia. And for many years, when they’d discover that I’m a vegetarian, invariably they wanted to argue about factory farming as well.
It’s been tiring for sure. And a lot of times I haven’t handled the arguments very well. I’ve become upset that people would say things that I found so uncharitable or ignorant or out and out dangerous. My heart has broken more than once at how little compassion some people have for the rest of humanity.
But while all of that arguing has been emotionally exhausting, it’s also taught me a lot about how to speak up effectively and it has convinced me of the absolute necessity of speaking up.
In the many instances I’m thinking of, I’ve usually been the only female speaking up. Often these arguments have occurred at pubs or at dinner parties. Places where straight white men in particular, seem to think the airing of their prejudices is acceptable. Places where they think they’re with like-minded people. In many such environments I spoke up because I didn’t want them to walk away from the evening thinking that everyone in the room agreed with their racist or homophobic comments, or that their sexist innuendo was ‘harmless play’.
I couldn’t let those moments pass because I knew if I did, those men would think their opinions were generally acceptable and that would embolden them to share them further afield.
I’ve read my history books. I’ve very aware of how dangerous that kind of slippery slope is.
I also knew that doing nothing was akin to saying, ‘I’m ok with racism.’ Or ‘Sexism is something I’ve happy to allow amongst friends.’
Twenty five years ago, while at university, I studied the notion of ‘acts of omission’. Acts of omission are failures to act. In my law classes we’d have discussions about a variety of circumstances, considering whether or not a person had a duty to act (to save another person, to stop harm in some way). If they had such a duty, failing to act meant they were liable for the harm caused, even though they’d technically done nothing.
I thought about this a lot in the context of breaking down systems of oppression – sexism, racism, classism, homophobia, ableism – and I concluded that the failure to act is, in and of itself racist, sexist etc.
I decided that acts of omission are almost as dangerous – arguably just as dangerous – as acts of commission (actually doing something).
I don’t believe you can call yourself an intersectional feminism if you’re engaged in such acts of omission.
The system cannot and will not be broken down if people stay silent. Silence not only perpetuates the status quo, it strengthens it.
To be clear, in encouraging you to take action, I’m not suggesting you quit your job and spend every waking minute initiating conversations about race or class or sexuality.
I’m saying, when the situation arises, have the courage to speak up.
I can think of many people in my life who haven’t spoken up in such moments. I can see them looking at me disapprovingly, rolling their eyes, or implying that it’s me who’s the problem.
It never seems to be the racist couple or the sexist guy that’s the problem. It’s always the person who points it out. The troublesome woman who won’t let it go.
I would love to live in a world where women lead in this way; by drawing a line in the sand of all conversations.
A line that says, ‘Think again about your unexamined prejudices. I will not allow this level of unconsciousness to be perpetuated in my presence.’
I’d love to live in a world where women realise the power they have to create change. Where they know that a conversation in their homes, amongst their circle of friends, with their facebook followers, in their church group, or in their school community can change people’s lives. That speaking up and showing others an alternative, matters deeply.
For a long time I took on people’s judgment of me. I thought of myself as ‘the troublesome one’ and I wished I could be different. I wished I could learn to ‘let things go’ as people had asked me to do. To not cause waves.
But when I thought about doing that, I considered what kind of person that would make me and I didn’t want to be that person. I can’t find a way to respect that.
Now I know the problem is not me. It’s the absence of people like me – people who are willing to speak up – that’s the problem.
Yes, it’s awful to be the unlikeable one.
You can lose friendships when you start speaking up.
But you know what’s worse?
- The fact that the life expectancy of a trans person in Ecuador is 35. That eight out of 10 trans young people have self-harmed and almost half have attempted to kill themselves in Britain.
- That a woman a week is murdered in Australia by her current or former male partner.
- That women with disabilities experience sexual violence at three times the rate of women without disabilities.
- That people who seek asylum in Australia are demonised and treated like criminals, locked in offshore jails.
- That factory farming is considered an acceptable practice in order to deliver meat to people’s plates.
- That over 30% of women in Australia have had a c-section when the World Health Organisation suggests that the rate should be somewhere around 10-15% (and before you start jumping up and down about women’s choices in birth, I’ve had a vaginal birth and a c-section and both had their downside. I’m not judging the choices women make, I’m saying there’s a problem with a system that so quickly jumps to medical intervention in matters pertaining to birth).
- That Aboriginal Australians represent 3% of the population and 28% of the prison population in Australia.
(Quick side note; you may be thinking ‘But she didn’t mention xxxx.’ If that’s the case, that’s your topic. That’s the thing you’re here to speak up about.)
It really doesn’t take much to signal that a person’s opinion isn’t a generally accepted perspective. You don’t have to make it personal (I strongly recommend you don’t – invariably they’ll stop hearing you and spend the rest of the discussion defending their wounded ego). But you absolutely can hold a line and express an opinion that’s different to someone else’s without getting into a heated argument.
Of course, when people who’ve never had others question them are offered a different perspective, they can respond badly. They’ll perceive it as surprising at best (and use it as an opportunity to correct the person who is questioning them. Queue mansplaining and whitesplaining). At worst, they’ll perceive it as a threat and all sorts of behaviour can unravel from there.
So we must all choose our battles wisely.
But choose them we must.
I’ve watched women step away from me as I’ve offered a contrary perspective in a group conversation. I’ve seen women huddle in circles and bitch about my forthrightness. I’ve had women physically turn their backs on me and encourage others, through their tone, to keep the conversation ‘light and fun’.
Next time you see a woman speaking up please don’t be one of those women. That’s not sisterhood. That’s upholding the patriarchy.
Don’t let her stand there on her own. Let other people know that you agree with her. That you’re with her.
Because you are going to benefit from her battle one day. You and your daughter and your daughter’s daughter and many other people besides.